Oxford Arts Blog

Anxious Times

The Financial Times has just released its list of Business Books of 2019.

The list is mostly comprised of titles you would expect to see on CEOs’ shelves, such as books on management and big technology firms.

But one stands out from the rest: a book based on Oxford research into life and health in the Victorian times. It turns out Anxious Times: Medicine and Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Britain has a lot to teach us about modern life.

Written by Dr Amelia Bonea, Dr Melissa Dickson, Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Dr Jennifer Wallis, the book emerged out of the Diseases of Modern Life: 19th Century Perspectives research project at Oxford University.

Funded by the European Research Council, the project was led by Sally Shuttleworth, Professor English Literature at St Anne’s College. The project looks at how literature, science and medicine reflected the stresses of a rapidly changing society, finding many interesting parallels to our own.

Professor Shuttleworth was 'delighted' to hear the book was named in the list. She said: 'It was very unexpected. That said, when writing the book and running the project, we were very aware that the themes we were looking at are concerns for public health and business at the moment.'

In the FT's list, they say Anxious Times "makes the fascinating case that the stress and anxiety of the Victorians…foreshadowed our own age's problems with burnout and disruption". 

Speaking about these parallels, Professor Shuttleworth said: 'I think it's of huge relevance to today's audiences and thinking. We spent time looking at what we now call "executive burnout", but that back then was called "overpressure".

'This had a lot to do with the coming of the telegraph, suddenly you had to work on a much wider, global scale, and you could be inundated with telegrams at all hours of night and day. Businesspeople in London would often even have telegraphs in their own homes, which really added to the pressures.'

If this sounds familiar – perhaps you too struggle from being always a phone call or email away from work - then you’re starting to understand a key parallel between modern day and Victorian times: the speed of technological change.

'I think every generation has a sense that things were better somehow in the past, but there are very strong parallels between now and the 19th century,' said Professor Shuttleworth. 'It's down to the rapidity of the change; if you think about that period, they went from being overwhelmingly agricultural to an industrial society in around 50 years.

'The railways carpeted the country, and with the creation of global telegraph lines, suddenly a letter that would have taken six months to get to Australia can be telegraphed in a matter of minutes. So the shift in how you orient yourself in the world and in your understanding of time and space is just remarkable. And I think that’s the same kind of issue we're coping with now.'

There are further similarities in the sheer amount of information available. The advent of the steam stress meant that people felt they were bombarded with print, while the new penny post led to a surge in advertising. We're seeing an echoing of that now, with concerns about how much space we have left where we’re not consuming information or being sold something.

Professor Shuttleworth recounted one story where: 'There's this wonderful description of a doctor being unable to eat their breakfast there were so many advertising flyers for drugs companies all over his table. So there was that same sense of being pressured to buy.'

It’s not just the similarities that may surprise readers. Anxious Times also uncovers some key differences in societal attitudes. Professor Shuttleworth explained: 'One of the big surprises was the way people were so sympathetic to sufferers from "overpressure" or "overwork".

'They accepted breakdowns as not being shameful, and would send executives off to health resorts for six months or more to recover. There was an understanding that convalescence required substantial time. I think that’s something that’s been completely lost.'

Given that kind of surprise, it becomes even clearer why this is vital reading for business. Professor Shuttleworth said: 'I think the lessons are that you shouldn't worry things are unprecedented. You can gain greater understanding of today's problems by placing them in historical perspective.

'There are also lessons to be learned from the ways in which the Victorians addressed the problems of industrial pollution which they had created, with local public health or 'sanitary' groups across the country getting together to measure air and water pollution, for example, and campaigning for legislation to control factory smoke,' she added.

'We tend to think of the "green city" movement as a creation of the twentieth century, but it also has its origins in the Victorian period. I was quite surprised and delighted to find all that!'

The Diseases of Modern Life research project has also had recent success in winning an Oxford Preservation Trust Award. Their Victorian Speed of Life light and sound show for Victorian Night Light was just named Best Temporary Project.

You can watch this in the video below, which uses projection and narration to give a whistle-stop tour of the research that went into the book.

A long winding mountain path across the original silk roads

Professor Peter Frankopan became a bestseller in 2015 when his book, The Silk Roads, captured interest across the world. As well as traveling as prolifically as the roads it’s named after, the book was also named one of the 25 most important books to be translated into Chinese in the last 40 years. It’s an engaging and erudite look at how travel and connections between cultures in the east became a lynchpin of world history. Richly researched, Peter’s been praised for giving its readers the chance to challenge the western perspective and see history in a bold new light. His follow-up, The New Silk Roads, looks to the future and how recent events are shaping a future along new global lines.

This month, Frankopan was awarded the Calliope Prize by the German Emigration Center Foundation. The awarding panel said the way The Silk Roads ‘breaks with the Eurocentric perspective’ was a big part of their decision.

Professor Peter Frankopan headshot
Professor Peter Frankopan wins Calliope Prize

Frankopan, who is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, has always been fascinated by how schools in the west don’t teach a lot of history about Asia, Africa or the Americas (pre-Columbus). When he first came to Oxford as a graduate student, he was excited to build on how the university teaches the history of regions to the east of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Certainly, it seems like his writing hit upon a hunger for new and diverse points of view.

Asked to explain part of the wide appeal of his work, Peter said: ‘I suppose that the main thing is that if you look at the history of exchange, of connections, and how the big jigsaw puzzle of world history fits together, one can find new perspectives even about things that seem very familiar.’

 ‘Delighted’ to be awarded the prize, Frankopan is looking forward to putting the lion’s share of the prize money towards a new project: working with the German Emigration Center, Frankopan will look at links between multilingualism and having an open view of the world.

Speaking of the upcoming project, he said: ‘I have always been interested in how language helps facilitate exchange, as well as overcoming boundaries. So as well as being honoured by the recognition for my past work, I am excited by the prospect of gathering data not only about how to measure the openness of societies, but see if and how the conclusions might have practical applications in the future.’

While the research is in the early planning stages, Peter explained: ‘My working assumption is that multilingualism tends towards two forms: first, elites who can afford language lessons, including the time to study, learn and memorise. Second, those who are forced to adapt because they are migrant workers and need to learn languages to work and survive. I have an open mind about how language proficiency is linked to tolerance and open-mindedness. But the aim of the research is to gather data so we can quantify and shape these ideas. And of course, potentially be proved wrong – and find that we are drawn into different directions. That in itself would be very interesting.’

The award is given to a researcher who ‘help[s] convey migration in a lasting, global and easily understandable way’. This is in keeping with the German Emigration Center’s mission to illustrate the impact of both emigration from the country and immigration to it.

It seems appropriate then that Peter sees the new collaboration as part of an academic duty to enable progress through generations: ‘One of our roles at Oxford is to teach, inspire and encourage the next generation to think about what matters, and to help train them on how to best answer those questions. So my hope is just that: to be a link in a chain that enables others to build on my work and research. Then they can take things on in whichever direction they think is most productive.’

Professor of Global History, Peter Frankopan, has been awarded the Calliope Prize from the German Emigration Centre Foundation. The Calliope Prize award ceremony will take place on November 23, 2019 at the German Emigration Center.

Humanities careers
The skills learned by studying humanities are vital for a wide range of careers. That was the message from a recent panel discussion involving leading executives in the finance, retail and recruitment sectors.
The Humanities at Work panel comprised Dr Jiaxi Liu, investment analyst at Baillie Gifford; Adam Lisle, head of training and development at Lidl UK; and Dr Micah Coston, senior research associate at the international executive search firm Perrett Laver.
Dr Jiaxi Liu, who studied music and trained as a classical pianist before entering the world of finance, told the audience at St Cross College that studying humanities gave her an advantage in her career. 'The ability to think, form arguments, read and write are skills we have as historians and classicists,' she said. 'You learn interview skills as a linguist which you can use when talking to management, and I meet with CEOs and CFOs all the time.'
She added: 'Anthropologists observe a lot and come to an explanation that others may not necessarily come to. Musicians work with each other all the time, it takes a leader to get a whole group together and playing at the same time, and that kind of self-initiative and independent thought is very much ingrained in humanities.'
Dr Micah Coston has a DPhil in English Literature from Oxford and told the audience that his time in Oxford has been invaluable in his career. 'All the things that develop you as a person, like organisational skills and time management, are so vital to what comes next,' he said. 'Doing a DPhil you have time to explore a subject before you tie it up to a conclusion. When you get into a working context, it becomes apparent that that was really beneficial.'
Adam Lisle said spending a year at Lidl’s German office learning the language has benefited his work at the company. 'Communications is one of our key pillars [at Lidl] and it is fundamental in a company spread across multiple areas and disciplines,' he said. 'Communication between departments and countries helps you to solve problems in a way that is clear and concise. Humanities brings that strength and we are looking for that in the recruitment process.'
He said a humanities degree should not deter an employer from hiring a strong candidate. 'As an employer we are looking across a wide range of degrees, we do not have any barriers in terms of what degrees we are looking for,' he said. 'Overall it is important what you learn from that experience of gaining a degree and how you translate that into the world of work when you enter an organisation.'
Research suggests the world of work will change dramatically in the next 20 years with Artificial Intelligence and robotic process automation changing and automating millions of jobs. But Dr Liu said this trend brings an opportunity for humanities students. 'As a humanities person, you have something that is not currently replaceable and that is creativity,' she said. 'Algorithms can’t capture creativity at this point, so use that to your advantage for the next 20 or 30 years.'
Carole Souter, Master of St Cross College, gave the opening remarks. Professor Phillip Bullock, Director of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), chaired the discussion.?Both Baillie Gifford and Lidl support the humanities at Oxford by funding scholarships and other activities.
Restoring ancient Greek inscriptions using AI deep learning

Researchers Thea Sommerschield and Professor Jonathan Prag (Faculty of Classics, Oxford), alongside Yannis Assael (Google DeepMind and Oxford’s Department of Computer Science) explain how they have been working to restore damaged ancient Greek inscriptions using DeepMind AI.

Historians rely on different sources to reconstruct the thought, society and history of past civilisations. Many of these sources are text-based – whether written on scrolls or carved into stone, the preserved records of the past help shed light on ancient societies. Such sources include inscriptions, texts inscribed on a durable surface (such as stone, pottery or metal). Inscriptions are one of the main direct sources of new evidence from the ancient world, but the majority have suffered damage over the centuries, and parts of the text are illegible or lost (Figure 1). Restoring the missing or damaged text is one of the main undertakings of the discipline of Epigraphy. It is a complex and time consuming task, but ancient historians can estimate the likelihood of different possible solutions based on context clues in the inscription – such as grammatical and linguistic considerations, layout and shape, textual parallels, and historical context. Although complex, the restoration of these documents is necessary for a deeper understanding of civilisations past.

Figure 1: Damaged inscription: a decree of the Athenian Assembly relating to the management of the Acropolis (dating 485/4 BCE). IG I3 4B. (CC BY-SA 3.0, WikiMedia)Figure 1: Damaged inscription: a decree of the Athenian Assembly relating to the management of the Acropolis (dating 485/4 BCE). IG I3 4B. (CC BY-SA 3.0, WikiMedia)

Figure 1: Damaged inscription: a decree of the Athenian Assembly relating to the management of the Acropolis (dating 485/4 BCE). IG I3 4B. (CC BY-SA 3.0, WikiMedia)

We have been using machine learning trained on these ancient inscribed texts to build a system that can furnish a more complete and systematically ranked list of possible restoration solutions, which we hope will augment historians’ understanding of a text.


Pythia, which takes its name from the woman who delivered the god Apollo's oracular responses at the Greek sanctuary of Delphi - is the first ancient text restoration model that recovers missing characters from a damaged text input using deep neural networks. Bringing together the disciplines of ancient history and deep learning, this work offers a fully automated aid to the text restoration task, providing ancient historians with multiple textual restorations, as well as the confidence level for each hypothesis.

Pythia takes a sequence of damaged text as input, and is trained to predict character sequences comprising hypothesised restorations of ancient Greek inscriptions (texts written in the Greek alphabet dating between the seventh century BCE and the fifth century CE). The architecture works at both the character- and word-level, thereby effectively handling long-term context information, and dealing efficiently with incomplete word representations (Figure 2). This makes it applicable to all disciplines dealing with ancient texts (philology, papyrology, codicology) and applies to any language (ancient or modern). To train Pythia, the largest digital corpus of ancient Greek inscriptions (PHI Greek Inscriptions) was converted to machine actionable text (called PHI-ML). On PHI-ML, PYTHIA’s predictions achieve a 30.1% character error rate, compared to the 57.3% of evaluated human epigraphists. Moreover, in 73.5% of cases the ground-truth sequence was among the Top-20 restoration hypotheses of Pythia, which effectively demonstrates the impact of this assistive method on the field of digital epigraphy, and sets the state-of-the-art in ancient text restoration.

Figure 2: Pythia processing the phrase μηδ?ν ?γαν (Mēdèn ágan) "nothing in excess," a fabled maxim inscribed on Apollo’s temple in Delphi. The letters "γα" are the characters to be predicted, and are annotated with ‘?’. Since ???ν is not a complete word, Figure 2: Pythia processing the phrase μηδ?ν ?γαν (Mēdèn ágan) "nothing in excess," a fabled maxim inscribed on Apollo’s temple in Delphi. The letters "γα" are the characters to be predicted, and are annotated with ‘?’. Since ???ν is not a complete word, its embedding is treated as unknown (‘unk’). The decoder outputs correctly "γα".

Figure 2: Pythia processing the phrase μηδ?ν ?γαν (Mēdèn ágan) "nothing in excess," a fabled maxim inscribed on Apollo’s temple in Delphi. The letters "γα" are the characters to be predicted, and are annotated with ‘?’. Since ???ν is not a complete word, its embedding is treated as unknown (‘unk’). The decoder outputs correctly "γα".

The combination of machine learning and epigraphy has the potential to transform the study of ancient texts, and widen the scope of the historian’s work. For this reason, the Oxford and DeepMind teams collaborated to create an open-sourced online Python notebook, Pythia, and PHI-ML’s processing pipeline on GitHub. By so doing, we hope to aid future research and inspire further interdisciplinary work.

Read more about this work on the original DeepMind blog post, or the preprint article 'Restoring ancient text using deep learning: a case study on Greek epigraphy' on arXiv.

Analía Isabel Gerbaudo, Professor of Literary Theory and Didactics of Language and Literature at the National University of Litoral (Argentina), has been appointed as Global South Visiting Fellow at TORCH.

Analía Isabel Gerbaudo, Professor of Literary Theory and Didactics of Language and Literature at the National University of Litoral, Argentina, has been appointed as Global South Visiting Fellow at TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities).

The Global South visitor scheme, which sits in TORCH, is part of a wider aim to diversify the curriculum in Oxford’s humanities departments. The scheme is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is part of TORCH’s ‘Humanities & Identities’ series.?

Dr Gerbaudo’s work tackles the difficult, charged and extremely topical question of the relationship between literary studies and political activism. The belief that practising criticism constitutes an important form of activism shapes the mission of the online literary journal that Gerbaudo founded in 2014, El Taco en la Brea, of which she remains the chief editor. It is also reflected in her most recent work as director of the independent publishing house Vera cartonera, linked to the ‘cartonero’ publishing movement which promotes literacy, diversity and social integration in Latin America by providing books at affordable prices. Dr Gerbaudo’s academic and professional work is produced outside the metropolitan context of Buenos Aires and is committed to geographical and social inclusion. She is currently researching the circulation of literary theory and Argentine literature during the last dictatorship and in the post-dictatorship period, especially with regard to questions of censorship, clandestine circulation and translation of texts, and underground reading practices. Gerbaudo is also an active translator and a committed mediator of Argentine literature and cultural politics in the global sphere.

Dr Gerbaudo said: ‘I would like to express my gratitude to those who have helped me develop and draw attention to a topic that I have been researching since 2006, the year I was admitted to the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET). I study how Argentine literature and literary theory were taught in public universities in the years following the end of the military dictatorship. More specifically, I am concerned with the “fantasies of nano-intervention” that inspired the practices which my research has contributed to highlighting. Thanks again to all the people involved in the TORCH project for this opportunity.’

Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista (English), Professor Laura Marcus (English) and Professor Benjamin Bollig (Medieval and Modern Languages) are sponsoring Dr Gerbaudo’s term at the University. While Dr Gerbaudo’s research has recently been published in the Journal of World Literature, her stimulating work remains very little known in Britain. This Global South Visiting Fellowship will provide her with a platform to share her work with English-speaking audiences both within Oxford and more widely, and to engage in ongoing debates in Oxford's Humanities faculties concerning disciplinary and interdisciplinary formations, literary translation, dissemination and the widening of the canon. Dr Gerbaudo’s expertise challenges the Eurocentric model of comparative literature by concentrating on Argentina as a key player in the global transmission of ideas and texts.

Dr Gerbaudo will be based at Oxford’s Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and Trinity College during Michaelmas Term 2019.?

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